I waited until the third novel of Lev Grossman's Magician Series was completed, then purchased all three and read them over five days. I know, right? But sometimes that is the best way to totally immerse oneself in a big, complicated, wonderful story. To live with the sound of the voice, the rawness of characters emotions and tribulations, and keep together all those story threads and marvel at how deftly they were woven into a whole. I am leery of reviewing too much of the story because with three interconnected novels, there would be too many spoilers -- and that would be unforgivable. So what I am going to offer instead, by way of review, is a short list of everything I loved about these novels.
1. The Voice: Grossman's characters age from late teens, early twenties, to just touching thirty. And each novel so accurately projects the voice of their ages. The dialogue is smart, nerdy, wise-cracking, angry, and laugh out loud funny. The omniscient narrator's prose shifts with the voices, staying close to them, filling out the raw emotions of these young adults and near adults with a dense, wry, and biting writing style. The vocabulary is a perfect mixture of math, slang, geek, arcane words from dead languages, and invented words. It works so well -- it keeps the stories moving on a level that is both immediate and accessible, a clean, sharp take on an old story, that for all its wisecracking asides still manages to also be incredibly poetic and beautiful too.
2. The Characters: Each novel offers rites of passage tales, centered around a main character, Quentin Coldwater, but supported by equally compelling characters in an ensemble effort to transform from complicated, precocious adolescents into equally complicated adults. And each novel interprets and then reinterprets the rites of passage as the characters slowly mature. Each one of them is unique and on their own path, but they collide into each other, fight with each other, love, betray, and support each other. I loved the attention Grossman gave to each one of them -- to their backstories (many of which we don't fully know until the second and third novels), the personal angst and struggle to arrive at an authentic identity. For all that it is fantasy -- the internal struggle of those characters is very real and timeless.
3. The Narrative Plot(s): This is a huge story, and Grossman teases it out in measured fashion, moving it along deftly, as though a shuttle through a warp and the thread then beaten into place to join the others. Separate and connected to create a rich story pattern. (I am weaving again --sorry!) It didn't matter that I knew at least thematically where the plot was going -- it was always a surprise when I got there. Grossman took wonderful chances -- running parallel story lines in the second book that occur at different times and places simultaneously, giving the reader a unique perspective of knowing both parts of a single tale before the characters do. He maintained that perfect balance between anticipation and confidence that the conclusions would be worth it.
4. The Landscape and Magic: Maybe this most of all for me. I feel that when human beings from a modern world side-step into a fantastic landscape (not unlike traditional tales where one leaves for the dark wood), that the fantastic world is there to serve a metaphorical confrontation with whatever doing and undoing needs to be done to change those human beings. It is not a frozen place -- it must be in a sense a character itself, capable of parallel change, capable of morphing to keep up with the challenges set before human characters. There are quite a few fantastic landscapes in these novels, and it is fascinating how the worlds transform when humans come into contact with them. A child's eden, a darkly divided land where lurks buried dangers, a way station to other worlds surrounded by towering buildings that keep books buried behind locked doors. And time zones that will not respect the laws of nature.
Magic too in Grossman's imagination is incredible rich in language and symbols from disciplines such as math, botany, alchemy, physics, chemistry, and archaic languages. It is learned in rigorous fashion in exclusive colleges, and a guerrilla version learned on the backstreets. It is inherently dangerous and addictive like a drug. It changes, depending on the individual and there are specialties, talents that are derived from some unique DNA of the magician. Like the landscape, it is never static but always evolving as the characters mature.
I really think Lev Grossman has given us a new lease on the "stepping through the wardrobe" tale of humans and magic. It is robust, effortlessly creative, and full of surprises.
Top art "Miniature of a Raising Sun, from "Splendor Solis," an alchemical treatise from 1582." Last bit of art from the gorgeous fan art from Celia Bohlin.